Just as people do, dogs come and go. Despite their deserved reputation for fidelity, and despite the stories one hears of dogs that gracefully age alongside their masters, sometimes reaching the equivalent of ninety or more, there are other dogs whose unsuitability becomes apparent almost as soon as one emerges from the shop with them; dogs that meet sudden, violent death; dogs that go berserk and have to be "put away." From time to time one even hears with alarm of a dog's suddenly turning vicious and attacking his own master, biting and rending.
The terms of Mildred Schapp's rental of Rex made the relationship both exciting and frighteningly insubstantial. She became more animated, and her change was sharp enough for even a casual observer like Jerry Kaplan to notice. Jerry would see the woman on her way down the sloping street every Saturday afternoon, and he might think, "There's that skinny broad again. Seems happpy today, wonder if she's getting some!" Or, depending on his mood, "There goes that skinny creep. Looks scared shitless, as usual."
For several weeks Jerry never saw Mildred with Rex. Thus he neither knew about the dog nor understood Mildred's fear and joy, or had any chance to see the qualities that emerged when she took Rex's leash: the sweetness, tranquility and childlike excitement.
The cause of Jerry's ignorance was simple: Mildred and Rex never took the sloping street home. Even though it was longer, they took the avenue on which the guard dog establishment stood, proceeding towards the neighborhood's commercial and residential section several blocks ahead. This was the section with the bookstores and toy stores, the cleaners and fruit stores, the section crowded with shoppers and loungers, and with uniformed guards who watched impassively over great piles of inexpensive goods. Mildred's motive for taking the longer way home was simple: pride in displaying Rex.
When they reached her apartment building, Mildred would sometimes decide they should walk three more blocks to a small park. When they got there, she would sit down on a favorite shaded bench with Rex at her feet, half in and half out of the sunlight. Thus would she dream away an hour or so, until it became necessary to think about supper.
The summer days lengthened and Mildred enjoyed the time. She took pleasure in the sound of Rex's nails tapping along her linoleumed hallway, and she would watch with tender love the grizzled head bending over the new red bowl filled with the special food she bought. Perhaps the greatest pleasure was her unconscious awareness of the big dog resting in the next room, never bored, never angry or sad, while she went about the housework. Mildred's routine became threaded with joy, a cloth of gold.
Late in July came a terrific heat wave, and one Saturday when it reached its apogee, Mildred broke with habit. The result was that Jerry Kaplan, the lumberman, finally got to see her with Rex.
As usual, she picked up her rented pet just after three-thirty. Since the afternoon showed no signs of cooling off, it was not a day for extra walking. She would retrace her steps and get Rex home, where he could have a bowl of water and they could sit at, and under, the bridge table across from the window which caught the breeze.
Thus it happened that, having given Eddie Mays the weekly check and having suffered his quip about "dog days," Mildred emerged with Rex and turned left, instead of right. She rounded the corner and, despite the heat, strode with her usual briskness up the long slope, which veered slightly to the left in a way that would reduce their walk by perhaps a quarter of a mile.
Arriving at Jerry's Lumber just as the proprietor and a customer were carrying a load of two-by-fours to a station wagon at the curb, Mildred and Rex stopped to let the men pass. The lumberman muttered his thanks, looked over his shoulder and, seeing the dog with the woman, did a double-take. Then, as he helped the customer tie the boards to the roof of the car, Jerry kept glancing after Mildred and Rex. He saw them cross the avenue at the top of the block and continue straight ahead.
Today Mildred was wearing her coolest dress, the sleeveless red rayon, and Jerry could follow its bright color beside the more muted form of the dog as the pair moved on, growing smaller and smaller.
In a minute the customer drove off and Jerry succumbed to impulse. Rushing back into the shop, he switched off the power for the machines. Then he snatched checks and paper money from the cash drawer, threw them in the safe, slammed the door and twirled the lock. Still hurrying, he set the alarm and secured windows and back door. Finally, he flipped the lights and ran out the front, garage door, pulling it down behind him. He stopped, then, and absent-mindedly jiggled the locked handle of the door while he stared in the direction the dog and woman had taken. Then he smiled, gave a tug at the waist of his overalls, and strode up the hill.
"It's okay, I made plenty today. Anyways, it's too hot to work all day. Who is that?" he wondered. "She never had no dog before. Where'd she get him, anyhow, AARF's? I got to see where she takes him."
This unlikely fascination with the old maid and her dog was born of boredom and a slow, summer sexual itch. And why shouldn't Jerry Kaplan take a little walk? His time was his own. "This is going to be a special Saturday. For once I ain't winding up at McGonegal's half-plastered on quarter beers."
But the sun was hot on his bare arms, and he must not push his bulk uphill too fast on a day like this. He was glad he was wearing his peaked cap. He felt sure he could maintain a pace slightly faster than that of the woman and dog, but less sure of what he would do when he caught up with them. Jerry peered ahead in vain and only hoped they would not turn a corner before he could spot them again ... .
The air was stiflingly moist and still. Arriving at her building, Mildred saw with despair that a crowd of teenagers covered the stoop, drinking beer and swaying to very loud radio music. So she abandoned her plans of home and, without even pausing, crossed the street and proceeded the three blocks to the park, where she sat down on her favorite, shaded bench. For several minutes, she sat perfectly still, trying to cool off, while Rex lay in front of her, tongue out and sides heaving.
Then she heard the flick of a switch. Almost directly across the path from their bench, no more than fifteen feet away, stood a young man of unprepossessing appearance. He was tall, pale, towheaded and bony, and wore shiny brown pants and a dirty sleeveless undershirt. His shoulders were pink and freckled from the sun. He stared glassy-eyed at Mildred and at Rex, who had begun to growl and strain at the leash. Mildred sat up straight. She was very, very annoyed, for on the ground to the young man's right was a huge radio, which he had just turned on at full volume. The young man's head rolled on his neck. In his left hand he clutched a long object wrapped in a dish towel. The radio was turned to the news station, and to each item the young man added a commentary.
"That's right," he said. "Bilk the taxpayer, John Q. Public. Give it to him good." He even had a remark about the weather. "Sure it's going to be cooler tonight. Sure it is."
Having restrained Rex for several minutes while they listened to this mad cacaphony, Mildred finally stood up and said pointedly, "This is not pleasant. Not. At. All. Let's go home, Rex."
As they started to move, the young man quickly unwound the towel and let it drop to the ground, revealing a long rusty butcher knife. Using both hands, he raised it slowly to the level of his own forehead, smiled conspiratorially, and appeared to aim the point directly down at Rex. All the while the editorials continued.
"Homeowners, who else? Sure, give them the dough, anything to keep the homeowners from moving out of the city."
Mildred stared at the knife. Her mouth and the pale hand which had been clenched around Rex's leash both fell open. At the very moment Rex was flashing through the air at the young man's throat, a heavy, vaguely familiar figure in cap, T-shirt and overalls rushed into the park and up the path ... .
Jerry's presence may be credited to his determination and to the keen sense of intuition found in certain easygoing fat men. Sweating and panting, but trusting at any moment to regain sight of woman and dog, he had continued undaunted up the hill. On such a day, he had surmised, the park must be her destination. But where were they?
More than once had Kaplan nearly turned on his heel, more than once had he almost wavered and gone back down to McGonegal's. But time and again he persevered, until finally he reached the park entrance -- only to see the violent confrontation unfolding some eighty feet in front of him.
Reacting perhaps one-fifth as fast as the dog, the lumberman rushed forward, shouting, "Hey! You! No! Hold it!" As Jerry moved toward the fray, Rex tore large pieces of skin from the assailant's neck and cheek, and began to savage the rest of his face. The knife dealt the big dog a superficial shoulder wound, and the combatants fell locked to the ground with Rex on top and the young man slowly drawing back his arm for a second thrust. All the while he kept muttering, as the radio emitted news and commercials.
During the first moments of the fight, Mildred Schapp had been paralyzed with fear, but now, recovering, she rushed across the path and kicked hard at the young man's drawn-up shins. "Let that dog alone, you pervert! Stop that!"
The knife was poised, but before it could descend Kaplan was on the scene. Grabbing the man's wrist in both hands, he slowly forced the weapon back down toward the ground. By now Rex had the assailant by the throat. Unfortunately, Eddie Mays had neglected to teach Mildred how to call Rex off once he attacked, and the madman's throat might well have been ripped out were it not for the fact that Jerry's friend and neighbor, Joe Bassano, the personnel supervisor, had once introduced Jerry to the huge Doberman who guarded the moving vans. Fascinated by this ferocious monster, Jerry had asked and been told how the creature was signaled to attack and stop. With great presence of mind, he now recalled the instructions and shouted them to Mildred: "Lady! Lady! Tell him, 'Down, Boy!' Quick, tell him! Quick! Quick!"
"What? Oh! Down, Rex!" Mildred ordered crisply. With reluctant obedience the big dog backed off a few feet, sat down and watched alertly, panting, blood trickling from his left shoulder, mouth opened in what looked like a compassionate smile. By this time, Jerry had plopped with a grunt on to the fallen assailant's chest, and he pressed one knee on to the man's knife hand, which began to open. In another moment the knife was in Jerry's hand, the point between the young man's eyes.
A frail old man walking a tiny dog at the far end of the park had seen the fight break out and hurried to an emergency call box on the corner. Now, across the grass ran this old man, his tiny dog on a slender red leash, and with them, a policeman, groping for his handcuffs. Very soon the assailant's hands were secured behind his back, the policeman was radioing for an ambulance, the flushed old man was smiling at the couple, and the dogs were circling and sniffing. The little dog tried to lick Rex's wounds, but was unsuccessful because of their relative heights and because Rex kept turning away the injured shoulder.
It was Mildred Schapp who finally thought to reach down and turn the radio off. As the news stopped, so did the editorials. Immediately, the young man began to groan and gnash his teeth.
"Drugs?" Kaplan asked the policeman.
Minutes later the ambulance arrived. The attendants kindly dressed the wound of the heroic dog as well as those of the attacker, who was locked into the back of the vehicle. Mildred was advised to take Rex to a vet for a tetanus shot and was told how to dress the wound without causing undue pain. After writing down brief statements from the three human witnesses, the policeman commended them and the dog, drove his car into the park and, red light blinking, followed the ambulance off. The old man accepted Mildred and Jerry's hearty thanks, tipped his hat, and pulled the little dog off in the direction from which they had come.
Mildred and Jerry looked at each other in silence. Jerry smiled at the thin woman.
"You know," he said, "I seen you go by my place -- the lumber place -- and I wondered why you had this dog with you. But I ain't wondering no more. Some dog, ain't he! Did you see him fly at the guy? Heck, these days a single lady ain't even safe in the daytime."
Mildred smiled and looked at her feet. "Well, actually, I don't keep Rex for protec ... ." She broke off because she had just noticed a piece of filthy notepaper where the assailant had fallen. Folded into quarters, it was covered with dark heavy pencil scrawl and smeared with blood, though whether its owner's or the dog's no one could have said.
"And what's this?" As she picked up and unfolded the sheet, Jerry came close so that he, too, could see. A single sentence, scribbled over and over in apparent furious haste, completely covered both sides of the paper:
DEATH TO EVERY GODANN FUCKING DOG IN NEW YOUR CITY
"How do you like that!" Jerry exclaimed. "A dog hater!" And I thought ... ."
"What a horrible person!" Mildred stooped to stroke Rex's grizzled head.
After a moment, Jerry blurted out a question: "Say, you think maybe I should see you home?"
"Oh, I don't see ... ." She changed her mind. "Well, actually, that would be kind of you, sir. I am shaken, and I imagine that, er, Rex is, too. Although he obviously has more presence of mind than I do." They smiled and left the park in the direction of her home.
The trio strolled along, Rex nearest the curb, Mildred in the middle. She and Jerry conversed happily, going over the incident and speculating about the young man. They prolonged the walk with a detour to a drug store, where Mildred bought a bottle of antiseptic. By the time they reached her building, there was no fresh blood on Rex's dressing.
By then the man and woman had become quite interested in one another. The trauma had torn away Mildred Schapp's reserve. Even in her wild and joyful state, as she answered Jerry's questions, Mildred spoke with precision. But she spoke more.
For some minutes the sky had been darkening and, as they stood at her stoop, both thinking about what they wanted to happen next, a wind came up, promising rain and perhaps relief. The stoop-loiterers had dispersed, so they were alone. Mildred blushed and Jerry, moved, extended a hand. But at that moment a honking car sped by, and Mildred turned to watch it. Jerry felt chastened and, contemplating the inadequate form in the bright dress, he sensed that a liaison with such a woman would not be a winning proposition. It would require, at the least, torrents of insincere rhetoric and preliminary alcoholic priming. And afterwards? God knew what would be required, then.
So it was down to McGonegal's, where he would wind up with "a package on," after all, and where, if he could find a way to tell his friends what had happened without exciting their ridicule, some of them might actually enjoy the little story. And why should there be a problem? "Can't a guy knock off early on such a hot day," he asked himself a second time," and go for a little walk?"
As for Mildred Schapp, all at once she felt pressed for time. She knew she must hurry upstairs to call a vet and a cab. Eddie Mays, too, would have to be informed. It was about to rain and she was anxious to get started. If the arrangements were made promptly, Mildred calculated, and then medical attention, dinner and dishes seen to, there might still be an hour for her to lie on the couch and read, in the company of her dear rented pet.
Article © Ron Singer. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-08-20
Image(s) © Elizabeth Yamin. All rights reserved.